Nowadays very few would dare of saying that the mind does not play a central role in athletic performance. The ability to govern and take your body to its limits and beyond depends on your mind and the control it is able to exert over the body machine.
Yet think about how thinking that athletic achievement depends only on athletic training was normal not too many years ago. In some sports-particularly individual sports and thus athletics-it was thought that mind, race strategies and vision skills had little to do with the final outcome. Since it was a matter of demonstrating one’s physical prowess, the mind was thought to play a marginal if any role out of laziness or lack of imagination.
Things have changed a lot today, mainly for three reasons:
1. There is growing evidence that the mind plays a central role
2. Figures such as the mental coach have become normal
3. There is a more mature and understanding attitude about the role of the mind.
But let’s start with a fundamental difference.
The difference between mental health and mental training
When one reads the word “mental”-often associated with terms such as “health” or “imbalance”-it is easy to assume that we’re talking about the realm of the pathological. On the other hand, “mental” might also mean “crazy.” Not surprisingly, this term and the expressions that contain it have struggled to be accepted because of the many shades of meaning they have. “Mental health,” for example, can be translated as “mental well-being”-thus a state of psychological balance and mental strength-and yet it is often confused with a condition of discomfort and insecurity.
The mistrust in psychologists and how they are normally understood has been replicated in the sports arena: as professionals to whom one can turn when the state of psychological distress is unbearable. The profession of psychology itself has suffered and still suffers from the distrust of those who consider it to be unnecessary (the same people who, generally, are the first who could benefit from it).
Having specified that there is a difference (very much so) between psychologist and mental coach; it is also true that, as mentioned, both figures are now more normally accepted and understood. Just think of Nicoletta Romanazzi – Marcell Jacobs’ mental coach – who after the sprinter’s incredible performance at last Olympics has been identified as one of the main architects of his success. Yet she was not a coach but a technical figure who helps athletes do a different kind of training: one that can be implemented without lifting a finger. At least apparently.
The mental coach, in this view and applied to the field of sports, is not a therapist but a technical figure who helps the athlete release his or her potential harnessed by phobias, fears and anxieties.
“Will I succeed?”, “Will they see me as a cheater, someone who can’t do anything?”, “I’m afraid of failure”, “I will surely fail as I failed that time”.
Anyone who has done or does competitive racing or has ambitions and competitive spirit, has asked themselves these questions, consciously or unconsciously. The goal of the mental coach is to value understandable doubts and frame them in the context of the possibilities athletes have, pushing them to expand them.
To better understand his or her role, it can be said that a mental coach is a person who can listen, more than talk and advise. By listening, he understands what the mental blocks are and advises how to overcome them, with the right measure and competence because the purpose is to empower those who rely on you, and any advice is, in some ways, a manipulation and shirking of responsibility. In short, a good mental coach tells you how to achieve your goals with your own strengths and by using only your potential, never replacing your will.
The most commonly used techniques
In sports, in addition to active listening to the athlete (as mentioned above, a fundamental part of the mental coach’s work), various techniques are used to fortify motivation, will, clarity of vision and concentration.
– Visualizations serve to focus attention on performance and movement, since even with imagination alone one can instruct the body to do something, or at least prepare it.
– Mantra: This is one of the oldest concentration techniques and not surprisingly is used in transcendental meditation.
– Motivating or activating phrases: these are formulas that have a particular and personal meaning for the athlete that in times of difficulty have the function of reinforcing will and motivation
– Activation control, that is, the ability to relax and concentrate on demand, by breathing or listening to music, or by meditating. Breathing is, for example, one of the techniques used by Romanazzi.
Do you need a mental coach?
It clearly depends on the goals you set for yourself. If they are very competitively or personally challenging, it is fair to consider using such services. If, on the other hand, running is for you a solving way of stress and mental fatigue in itself, its therapeutic value is sufficient.
If you decide instead that it can be useful to you, it is right to understand it as an integral part of training, not as a gimmick you resort to when you encounter mental blocks. It is a bit like getting a physical therapist to assist you only when you incur an injury, never having worked before with a training aimed at avoiding the injury in the first place.
After all, are they are not professionals who intervene in a short time solving complex issues: their assistance must be continuous and timely to ensure a profound and lasting result.
In the future, the mental coach will be normal
It may not happen in a few years, but, as is often the case, when narratives change, minds change as well. That the mental coach is no longer seen as a psychologist (which, again, he is not and no nor has he ever been) or as a figure to turn to in order to fix some psychological issue is a start. The near future is undoubtedly the time when more and more athletes will seek the assistance of this professionals to improve their performance, considering it simply normal and useful to do so.
In the less foreseeable future, the mental coach will also become another type of coach for the amateur: the one who regardless of sporting ambitions, helps to express the maximum potential. Anyone’s.